Cherie Priest: Not Flesh Nor Feathers

This review originally ran on Green Man Review.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers is Cherie Priest’s third novel concerning Eden Moore. It is set once again in the lush southern strangeness of the Tennessee River Valley that cradles Chattanooga. This one is a real tour de force, too — it’s like a perfect classic monster movie, full of genuine terrors, horrendous special effects and an all-star cast.

Eden Moore, that splendidly competent protagonist, can see the dead. She can’t locate them, she isn’t exactly a medium, she has no visions or spirit guides — she just sees the dead, as normally as she sees her friends and family.

In fact, seeing the dead is often less trouble than seeing her friends and relatives. Her aunt and uncle, who raised her, are currently anxious to have her finally move out of the house AND worried about her safety in doing so. Eden is about to go back to college and take a brand-new apartment, and is in the throes of about-to-launch nervousness. Her weird cousin Malachi no longer wants to kill her (under the impression she is possessed by the spirit a mutual great-grandfather), which is good. However, he is now emotionally clinging, and wants to visit and reconcile with the rest of the family. Eden is actually rather fond of Malachi, and is trying to figure out how to explain to her aunt that she has invited her previously-homicidal cousin to dinner. Eden’s friends range from wanna-be television ghost hunters to aging skateboard slackers, and none of them is being supportive right now. Romance may be sneaking back into her life, And in the meantime, it’s been raining in Chattanooga for days and days, and the Tennessee River is rising. . . .

All of these problems would be enough to occupy any heroine, and Priest delineates Eden’s daily grind with her usual wonderful attention to place and detail. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed this book even without the — literally — rising tide of weirdness. But that tide does peak during the course of the story, and it’s a grand and dreadful tale. Starting with warnings from a mad, bad skateboarder who insists that the city’s homeless are vanishing from riverside locations (and whose solution to getting Eden’s attention is to burn her new apartment to the ground), Eden is drawn into a widening gyre of interconnected grisly mysteries — a violent ghost in an elegant downtown hotel, churches long ago burned to the ground with their congregations inexplicably chained to the pews, hidden entrances into Chattanooga’s underground maze of tunnels and cellars. All of them are tied together in ways that only the dead can identify, and that connection rapidly becomes a matter of life and death for Eden and Chattanooga. Because the vengeful dead are rising with the flooding river, reaching everywhere the water can reach — and the water can reach everywhere.

The latter half of the book is an intense, insane quest through a city in the very throes of drowning. Eden trudges through the drenched streets, from shelter to cellar to refugee center, tracking missing friends and the hapless Malachi, and dodging drowned, burnt zombies. She’s wet, cold, hungry and terrified — the bone-deep exhaustion is so real you ache while reading it. And the constantly approaching walking corpses are truly terrifying; Eden (and the reader) gets ever-more-horrific glimpses of the advancing dead: on cell phone cameras, over hysterical police radio broadcasts, as the sodden echo of too-soft feet on distant concrete. The pervasive atmosphere of mounting terror is extraordinarily effective, especially as Priest counterpoints it with sharp notes of realism: the joy of being able to lie down for an hour, fresh water in a clean glass, the smell of people in wet wool and plastic.

This really is a rollercoaster of a book, and you hang on tight the whole way. The denoument is too complex and interesting to hint at here — besides, this is truly one of those stores where the journey is half the fun.

I was left worrying about Eden’s long-term fate, though; by the end of the book, she has had it with Chattanooga, and means to seek her fortunes elsewhere. In the meantime, Priest has moved from the fascination of the Tennessee River Valley to Seatle — so I have to wonder what Eden will do next, as I would hate to see her story end. But since Seattle has its own underground — and lies moreover in the flow plain of an active volcano — I think and hope we have not seen the last of the lovely Eden Moore.

(Tor, 2007)

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